10 High Impact Home Improvements You Can Do for $10K or Less

For all the focus we put on transactions – buying and selling – the truth is that for most of your life as a real estate consumer, you’ll be a homeowner.  And because your home is so much more than just a transactional asset, a widget to be traded and tweaked only for financial reasons, it makes sense to spend some portion of your time, energy and money making it really work for you.

Unfortunately, what too many of us do is wait until we can save up or pull out tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars to make a major move: build on an addition, gut and remodel the kitchen, turn the basement into a media room extraordinaire.  And many times, that means we never do the project, or we only do it when it’s time to sell and move.

The fact is, there are numerous remodeling projects that can crank up your enjoyment factor at home, for the much more accessible sum of $10,000.  Here’s my hit list of the top 10 things you can do for 10K, if you’re in your home and planning to stay put for a while:

1.      Crank up the curb appeal.   We usually talk about curb appeal in the context of sprucing your home up to prep it for sale, but I say that it’s also one of the most cost-effective home improvement projects for homeowners who are staying put in terms of life-improving bang for the home improvement buck. There’s just something about loving the way your home looks when you drive up to it day after day, or when you have people over, that dramatically increases your enjoyment of home. 

Depending on which projects you’d like to do and whether you’re interested in doing any of the work yourself, you can crank up your curb appeal for just a few hundred dollars or a few thousand. Here are a few vision-starting curb appeal-boosting projects to consider:

•Exterior paint or power wash
•Paint or install a new garage door
•Paint or install a new front door
•Paint or install new trims (shutters, eaves, etc.)
•New exterior hardware (door kickplate, mailbox, house numbers, etc.)
•Exterior or landscape lighting
•Front yard landscaping spruce-up or makeover

2.     Get rid of a wall. You might be a homeowner now, but hearken back to your days as a house hunter.  You might remember seeing homes and wishing for what is easily the #1 remodel fantasy of homeowners to be: knocking down a wall.  In my experience the wall home buyers-cum-owners love to hate the most is the one between kitchen and dining room, far and away.  Opening a kitchen and dining room into one larger, brighter space holds particular appeal for those who enjoy gathering family and friends to entertain at their homes, without isolating the cook/host.

The next most common wall people crave to eliminate is a wall between two small bedrooms. Now, agents and appraisers will tell you that turning two small bedrooms into one poses the potential to decrease the resale value of a home – and that’s true. But if you’re not planning to sell anytime soon, it might be worthwhile doing it anyway, especially if it renders two barely usable rooms into one user-friendly space.  And in fact, this wall is often relatively inexpensive to remove – and to replace, if you decide to do so.

In fact, removing walls, even structural walls, is highly feasible and much less expensive than many home owners assume.  (If a load-bearing wall is removed, the structural component can often be preserved and finished, by simple leaving a beam at the ceiling.) What can jack the price up is the relocation of plumbing or wiring contained in the wall being removed. Reconnecting interruptions in flooring and adding in things like an island or the other remodeling line items that can go along with opening a kitchen up (e.g., adding an island, new cabinets and counters, etc.) can also add up. Check with a reputable local contractor to consult on how such a project can be planned and executed efficiently.

 3.    Swap out the old windows for dual-paned.  This is one of those $10K-ish projects that actually can pay for itself over time. Switching out your old single paned windows for new dual-paned ones might make your home look better, but it will definitely make your home operate more efficiently – and more comfortably.  Dual-paned windows minimize heat-loss in the winter and keep the cool air in, in the summer, so you’re not trying to heat up and cool down the whole outdoors through the leaks in your windows. They’re also a must if you have street noise or other noise challenges around your home; the extra insulation traps noise before it can get to you, inside your home.

As with everything, costs vary by location and by the quality of window you choose, but you can use $200-300/window, installed, as a rough rule of thumb.  Some older homes can require wood repair of rotted out window frames, in the course of switching to dual-paned, which can increase the project cost significantly. Also, many cities and states offer rebates for installing dual paned windows (and making other energy-efficient upgrades, by the by), which can dramatically defray the costs of this particular remodeling project. 

4.      Extend your living areas outdoors. The National Outdoor Kitchen and Fireplace Association pegs the average cost of an outdoor kitchen at $12,000 to $15,000 on average – so, if you can cut costs, find appliances on sale or do some of the work yourself,  you might just be able to get one in your own backyard for the $10,000 price point.  Outdoor kitchens can be as simple as a table and grill, or as complex as having wood-burning ovens, refrigerators and big-screen televisions.  Whatever route you go, the appliances are likely to be the single most expensive line-item of an outdoor kitchen. If you can tolerate the high-class problem of bringing your food from indoors, you can very cost-effectively create an outdoor living room complete with weather-proof furniture and lighting, in your backyard instead.

The major remodeling return-on-investment indices don’t track the return on outdoor living spaces, but experience tells me that well-executed outdoor kitchen and living rooms are both extremely fun to live with – and extremely desirable to the buyers to whom you will eventually be marketing your home.

5.      New kitchen appliances.  In terms of sheer functionality, new kitchen appliances can create an overwhelming upgrade to your family’s everyday life. A new fridge will run you anywhere from $350 to $2,000 on average (though French door, custom and commercial versions can cost upwards of $10,000 or more); a new stove/oven range can run anywhere from $300 to $6,000 (with the commercial, 40-inch ranges running from $9,000 to $20,000+) and an appliance store dishwasher will cost you somewhere around $250 to $1,600.

 6.    Swap out your carpet.  Listen, you might LOVE carpet.  And if you do, that’s fantastic.  But many Americans are living with carpet they really, really dislike, whether because of its color, its condition or the upkeep and maintenance it requires.  If you have $10K and you can’t stand your carpet, you can estimate that it’ll run you about $300-$500 per room to replace it with new carpet, or $1500-$2000 per room to replace it with hardwood, depending – obviously – on where you live, how large your rooms are and what specific materials you choose in terms of the replacement floors. 

 7.     Bring a bathroom into this millennium.  The average cost of a bathroom remodel in America is right around $16,000, according to Remodeling Magazine, but that lumps master bathrooms in with powder rooms and the like. I say there are dozens of things you can do to your hall or other bathrooms to bring them into the 21st century for well under the $10,000 mark.  For example, my Jacuzzi tubs are probably the most-used “appliances” in my home – homewyse.com pegs the average cost of swapping your tub for a jetted one at somewhere between $1500 and $3500. And last year, I traded up my hall bathroom sink and faucet for top-of-the-line versions for right around $1,000, installed.

In fact, there are a number of thousand-dollar-or-less bathroom power-tweaks suggested by Consumer Reports – if you’re committed and smart, you can group a number of them into a bathroom that feels like new for well under $10,000:

•Replace the vanity with a new wood model that has a stone counter.
•Add a new mirror and faucet. Alternatively, keep your current vanity but replace your toilet and faucet and add a new vinyl floor.
•Improve lighting and ventilation with a new combination light and exhaust fan. One with a heat setting will keep you from getting chilled when you get out of the shower.
•Add a set of sconces on either side of the mirror or medicine cabinet.
•Update towel bars, hooks, toothbrush and toilet paper holders, and cabinet hardware. Add matching shelves for your towels and toiletries.
•Switch your standard showerhead to one with multiple settings, including a pulsating or massage setting.
•Keep your towels toasty with a heated towel bar, some of which cost $100 or less.

8.     Build in organizing systems.  Clutter is an energy vampire – there’s nothing like having a place for everything and everything in its place to create the sense that your life is in control. And one of the most significant advantages to owning your own home is that you can customize it to manage your stuff and your activities, rather than being forced to fit your things into someone else’s system. If you have $10K in hand to make your home more ‘you,’ consider having custom organizing systems built into your closet, office, pantry or garage, tailored to your family’s stuff and needs. 

The range of pricing here is vast, depending on whether you buy an off-the-shelf closet organizer at the home improvement store and install it yourself or call California Closets out to measure your shoes and sporting goods and input them into a custom design, complete with hydraulics. 

 9.    Paint.  A few years back, there was a study on what home improvements actually could be linked to an increase in happiness and well-being.  One of the most affordable was to simply paint the rooms of your home in colors that fostered the target emotions that map to the function of the room. For instance, painting a bedroom a soft blue or green fosters tranquility and rest, while painting a kitchen or dining room a warmer shade might promote the cozy fuzzy feelings of family togetherness.  Painting can be very affordable, depending on your home’s size and details, and is a great starter do-it-yourself project, to boot.

My personal cost-cutting tip: pick your colors from the designer paint swatches, but have the paint department staff use more affordable paint when they custom-mix the colors to mix.

 10.  Connect your home. When so-called “smart home” systems first came out, they were the stuff of an MTV Cribs episode, costing tens of thousands of dollars to put various home systems on a remote control.  But as with all technologies, costs of connecting your home have come down – a lot. For anywhere from $200 to $2,000, you might be able to have your home’s systems wired so that you can:

•Control lighting, heating and AC remotely
•Have your HVAC systems and window coverings, for example, work in sync
•Monitor your home via video and sensors for security and other home crises (e.g., flood, etc.), no matter where you are.
The best part? Even the least expensive of these systems now is able to be run via a smartphone app.  Home security providers are increasingly offering these options, and even some home internet/telephone providers have also gotten into the business of affordably connecting your home.

If you’re considering making a modest investment in a home you plan to own for a while, you’re increasingly in the norm. Studies show that over 50% of homeowners are now focusing on smaller home improvement projects that increase their enjoyment of their homes - even if they don't increase its value. 

By Tara-Nicholle Nelson | Broker in San Francisco, CA